Has punk ever really, truly been dead? Since the genre’s eruption in the late ‘70s, it’s birthed not only wave after wave of bands both good and bad, but also endless hours of public panic surrounding the genre.
That reaction is apt, considering that one of punk’s goals was always to upset the cultural apple cart and make squares question their very being.
Anyone looking for evidence of the genre’s misunderstood and manic origins needs only look to the wide swath of “punk panic” entertainment that emerged in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s. Dozens of TV shows and movies were made where punks were examined, critiqued and satirized. Talk shows had panels of guests in leather and liberty spikes, while figures like Dead Kennedys’ singer Jello Biafra popped up on Oprah to advocate for his right to free speech.
Much has been written about the best punk movies, and there are quite a few, including The Decline of Western Civilization, Suburbia, Urgh! A Music War and Repo Man. But what about the most forgettable and cringeworthy nods to the genre, from a Phil Donahue Show episode about “punk rockers” to an ABC Afterschool Special titled — and this is true — The Day My Kid Went Punk?
Here are 11 of the goofiest and most ridiculous tributes to punk ever committed to film.
Tanya the Punk Rock Teen on ‘Sesame Street’
Tanya made her first and only appearance on Sesame Street in 1986, a full decade after the genre broke in London and New York. Played by a Broadway actress named Danielle Striker, Tanya was originally envisioned by Sesame writers as a “punk-rock teen” somewhat in the vein of Madonna. Striker donned spray-on hair color for the role, interacting onscreen with Elmo and Grundgetta, the latter of whom assumes she’s a fellow grouch. She ends the episode catching a hot performance from Grundgetta and her punk-haired pals, who do a rollicking rendition of “Grouch Girls Don’t Wanna Have Fun.” Unfortunately, that episode marked Tanya’s only appearance on Sesame Street, as the show’s creator, Joan Ganz Cooney, claimed that she was too shocking for Middle America and banned the character from ever appearing again. It’s an odd decision considering the show had already featured punk-styled Muppets like Nick Normal and the Nickmatics performing a rollicking Velvet Underground version of “The Letter N,” but maybe a living, breathing punk was just a bridge too far for children’s television.
‘Punk Rockers’ Take Over Phil Donahue
Always a trendsetter, Phil Donahue was one of the first talk-show hosts to book punks on his program. They first appeared in a 1984 episode, in which Donahue invited a panel of punks – including Ministry’s Al Jourgensen – to defend their existence. (When asked what kind of music he plays, Jourgensen replied, “I don’t know; you tell me.”) They’re joined by a mom who’s proud of her punk-rock daughter and a music journalist, as well as naysayers like Serena Dank, founder of “Parents of Punkers.” That group, it turns out, was a sort of family therapy cadre intent on helping parents who struggled with their teens “going punk,” or as Dank once told the Spokane Daily Chronicle, dealing with the fact that their teens are more interested in “hopelessness and anger” than “love and peace.” The audience, of course, sided with Dank and company, citing unfounded claims of violence stemming from the punk movement as they shouted down the panel’s defenders. Donahue would dip into the punk well a few more times before leaving the small screen, including a 1986 episode that looked at New York hardcore and a 1990 episode about censorship that featured Suicidal Tendencies’ Mike Muir, Plasmatics’ Wendy O. Williams and Jello Biafra.
Steve Guttenberg Goes Punk for ‘Police Academy 2’
A twist on the old going undercover trope, Police Academy 2’s plot had Steve Guttenberg’s Mahoney disguising himself to blend in with a punk biker gang led by Bobcat Goldthwait’s Zed. A drooling loose cannon, Zed led the gang of thugs as they start a riot at a street fair and roughed up the police chief, even spiking his hair into a mohawk — which, let’s be honest, is unlikely considering how long that would take — and spray painting his clothes. When the cops go on the offensive against the punks, it’s an all-out war. Released in theaters in March 1985, Police Academy 2: Their First Assignment was a certified success, grossing about $55 million at the box office and turning a healthy profit. While no one could argue that the Police Academy movies made being a cop look like the most prestigious and intelligent job, somehow the cops still managed to outsmart the punks in the end.
Hoodlums rock ‘WKRP in Cincinnati’
Punk came to Southern Ohio in a 1978 episode of WKRP in Cincinnati. In “Hoodlum Rock,” the station welcomes the hot new punk band Scum of the Earth to the station, much to the dismay of the station’s general manager, Mr. Carlson (Gordon Jump). When the British trio arrives in three-piece suits, he’s pleasantly surprised. That doesn’t last long, though, as he quickly realizes that a gentlemanly appearance and suave accent can’t counteract the group’s gleefully anarchic and destructive tendencies. Fun fact: One of Scum of the Earth’s members, “Dog,” was played by Michael Des Barres, who’d go on to play Murdoc on MacGyver and join Power Station after Robert Palmer’s departure. The song WKRP used from Scum of the Earth on the show was actually by Des Barres’ real band, Detective.
Teens Talk About Punk
Hosted by local high school teacher Joe Feinstein, Teen Talk was a weekend chat show for teens living in the Los Angeles area. (For some reason it aired early on Saturday mornings when teens are guaranteed to be asleep.) In the early ‘80s, Feinstein recruited a group of area teens to come on an episode to talk about punk music and whether it was weird that, for instance, John Doe from X wanted to obscure his identity. It’s a charmingly earnest discussion, if only because Feinstein is so clearly open to learning — albeit in kind of an out-of-date manner.
Tom Snyder Takes on John Lydon
When Tom Snyder agreed to have Public Image Limited on his talk show in 1980, he really should have known what he was getting into. Snyder opens the interview by asking John Lydon and fellow PiL member Keith Levene if their group’s name is “limited or unlimited,” and then, a bit befuddled, muses, “What is that?” – as if anyone ever asked the Beatles to explain their name satisfyingly. Lydon and Levene instantly have their hackles raised, and the interview only goes sideways from there. While the late Tom Snyder seems like he must have been a very nice man, he was no match for Lydon that day. Then again, who ever is?
Don Rickles Meets the Dickies
If you haven’t heard of CPO Sharkey, don’t worry, because you’re not alone. The naval-themed sitcom ran for just two seasons in the late ‘70s. Don Rickles starred as the show’s titular commander who was pretty much just Don Rickles doing lines. The show’s most notable episode, “Punk Rock Sharkey” ran in 1978 and found two of Sharkey’s naval recruits, Skolnick and Kowalski, getting dressed down after they got into a fight at a punk bar. Sharkey is blissfully unaware of the punk movement — shocker — but his recruits aren’t. They make a plan to return to the dingy bar to “have fun and check out the freaks.” When Sharkey arrives to drag his recruits out by their respective ears, he not only catches the tail end of a set by the Dickies, but also makes friends with a colorful punk girl named Quinine. As credits roll, viewers even get to see Rickles take a stab at pogoing. Rock ‘n’ roll!
‘CHiPs” ‘Battle of the Bands’
Has any show ever been less punk than CHiPs? The cop-loving sitcom was more into feathered hair and tight shorts than breaking rules and sporting spikes. Still, for a 1982 episode called “Battle of the Bands,” the show attempted a dive into the subculture. In the episode, iconic character actor William Forsythe plays Trasher, the lead singer of the “punk” band Pain. They’re competing in a battle of the bands contest against new wave singer Snow Pink who — you guessed it — has pink hair. Somehow, Pain manages to wreck Snow Pink’s van in an attempt to steal gear, and the CHiPs are tasked with smoking them out. There’s slam dancing, awful interpretations of what punk sounds like and even some Erik Estrada singing. The whole thing is a massive car wreck as far as being authentically punk is concerned, but if you’re the kind of person who likes to scoff at just how wrong something really is, “Battle of the Bands” could be worth a watch.
One of the most often cited examples of TV getting punk terribly, terribly wrong, Quincy M.E.’s 1982 episode “Next Stop, Nowhere” is, to this day, a paragon of what not to do if you’re writing about punks. “Next Stop, Nowhere” opens with the murder of a teenage boy during a set by local punk act Mayhem. The cops and coroner’s office, including Medical Examiner Quincy (Jack Klugman), suspect the boy’s messed-up girlfriend, but Quincy and his girlfriend (Anita Gillette) believe the real murderer could be that cockamamie punk-rock music. The episode diverges from there, with the girlfriend getting drugged by the real killer, and Quincy and company going on a local talk show to espouse the dangers of punk. Why, Quincy wonders, don’t punks seem to care about anything? At least the hippies did something, he argues. The episode ends with Quincy and his girlfriend dancing to big-band music and wondering why anyone would choose to listen to that damn anarchic racket.
‘The Day My Kid Went Punk’
An ABC Afterschool Special from 1987, “The Day My Kid Went Punk” is 43 minutes of pure nonsense. In the episode, a high school orchestra nerd attempts to seem punk to woo a girl. He pierces his ear, wears makeup, buys a leather jacket and eschews the violin for a garage band. His father is understandably alarmed, claiming his child has “punk syndrome,” and for good reason: By the end of the movie, the son is kicked out of the orchestra and is dating the girl he went punk for in the first place. The message: Don’t let this happen to your child. All of their dreams could come true, and who wants that?
‘Sugar Time,’ We’re Goin’ Down
A forgotten and forgettable sitcom from the late ‘70s, Sugar Time! was about a wholesome girl band that, in one episode, hook up with a lecherous and misguided manager who encourages them to venture into punk rock. The episode, aptly titled “Punk Rock,” finds the trio taking the stage in actual trash bags stuffed with newspaper, sneering at the crowd and attempting to perform motions they think punk rockers would make. The in-studio audience laughs, of course, because how could these pretty, normal girls ever be swayed to the world of punk? The episode ends with the girls back in their color-coordinated disco jumpsuits, singing pleasantly-toned pablum and thinking about what their mothers would think about their foray into trash rock.
Top 10 Punk Albums
You’ll find some familiar names, but also bands that didn’t sell as many records while having just as much impact.